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Foreign Affairs

Shi Lang

As Peter draws attention to below, the maritime rise of China is causing concern among its neighbors, particularly Japan. For the first time China has officially admitted that it is adding an aircraft carrier to its fleet, retrofitting an old Soviet carrier while "secretly" constructing two new carriers itself (they have not yet officially admitted to building new ones). This is understandably causing jitters among its neighbors, and many of them are increasing their own defense budgets in the wake of the Chinese military build-up. This is because of territorial disputes that China has with all of its neighbors. In fact, some maps in Chinese school textbooks include as Chinese portions of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Burma, Bhutan, Russia, Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, Brunei, Indonesia, and most of Mongolia. The claims they make that are most volatile at the moment are their maritime claims, which include waters claimed by Japan and much of southeast Asia.
Another big issue is Taiwan, which the Chinese are still very feisty about. Historically, whenever the United States placed its ships close to China to protect Taiwan, the most that China could do is issue a complaint. Now, the Chinese will be able to flex muscle and send out its own ships-- Taiwan will not enjoy the same protection that it has in the past, nor will China's maritime neighbors be as able to maintain their protests against the Chinese territorial claims. While the strength of China's fleet should not be overstated--the United States still has more aircraft carriers than the rest of the world combined, including all of the biggest ones with bigger ones being built--geopolitically this is going to really shift the balance of power in southeast Asia. It should not be seen as a threat to the United States, but our grand strategy must adjust to account for this.
The United States should join China's neighbors in not buying into the claims that their new aircraft carrier is purely for research and training purposes, and watch the developments with a cautious eye. The aircraft carrier is called the Shi Lang, named in honor of the Ming-Qing admiral who conquered Taiwan. The island should certainly be concerned, and so should we. The Cato Institute's Ted Galen Carpenter wrote a book in 2005 on how the Taiwan situation could still explode into a larger conflict, and recommended that, in light of growing Chinese superiority in the region, we adopt a more prudent position in regards to the Taiwan issue in particular-- and gives some worthwhile examples on how to handle the delicate situation. To ignore the problem while maintaining current positioning could be disastrous. With the geopolitical reshuffling in southeast Asia, we need to move beyond pure military deterrence and begin using other tools at our disposal to help our friends in the region and keep the Shi Langs of China at bay. 
Categories > Foreign Affairs

Discussions - 2 Comments

The primary concern to the USA isn't an aircraft carrier - it will take them decades to become as proficient at utilizing aircraft carriers as the United States currently is. The primary concern for American interests in the Western Pacific is China's investment in and development of anti-ship missiles. Along with the Russians (reset, indeed), they are a developing long-range "carrier killer" that is designed with capabilities intended to bypass our capital ships' ballistic missile defense systems. This would, of course, throw a giant monkey wrench into our grand strategy in the Pacific.

There are still reasons to be hopeful: the USSR abandoned the same program as too difficult and expensive, our military is aware of the threat and beginning to contemplate/develop counter-measures, and the PRC is spending more on internal security than they are on their blue water navy and their missile programs (the Communist Party leaders believe their own people are a bigger threat than foreign nations at the moment).

Still, the coming of age of a massive surplus of young men and a generation of military leaders (the "tigers") who never knew the horrors of the Cultural Revolution or the brutal efficiency and surprising tenacity of the American war-machine on the Korean Peninsula does not bode well for a nation whose increasing affluence is leading to increasing discontent.

It's as predictable as the sunrise - with money comes ambition. It was (and is) a massive and history-shaking mistake to send billions and billions of dollars of capital to (semi-) Communist China. The notion that capitalism will lead to democracy (and thus peace) is based on questionable social science. And there's absolutely nothing about affluence that automatically equates to peaceful relations with one's neighbors. Germany was affluent, as was Japan. In global terms the old USSR was affluent (in its own way, admittedly).

Our only real hope in this situation is that China remains true-to-form; its culture has never been overfond of expansionism or imperialism (Tibet being a notable exception).

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